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How to Become a Novelist in Your Second Career

These six tips, gleaned from this month's ThrillerFest writers' conference in New York, can help get your dream book published

By Nancy Collamer

(Sadly, novelist Michael Palmer, who is featured in this article, passed away in November 2013.)

Writing a book is at the top of many boomers’ bucket lists. As a new author myself (shameless plug: Second-Act Careers), I appreciate that. But I also know that figuring out how to go from bucket list to the best-seller list can prove a bigger challenge than you think.
That’s why I decided to spend some time at ThrillerFest last week in New York City. Now in its eighth year, the conference is a one-of a-kind networking and educational event for aspiring and seasoned thriller writers. At a speed-dating-inspired session there, would-be authors pitched their projects to dozens of literary agents.
First Published After 40
One of the things that intrigued me most about this conference was how many of its featured authors didn’t get published until they were over 40, sometimes not until their 50s.  

Physician Michael Palmer, whose first novel came out when he was 40, told me: "My initial writing dream, besides simply finishing, was to see my name on the cover of a novel and maybe to give copies out to friends and family for Christmas. When my agent phoned to say that the outline of the book had been bought by a major publisher, she asked me to guess how much my advance was going to be. My initial guess, with fingers crossed, was $5,000. In reality, it was 50 times that, and suddenly a second career was a big reality."

Today, Palmer splits his time between working as a physician and a novelist. His most recent medical thriller is Political Suicide.
(MORE: A Writer Finally Gets a Room of Her Own)

6 Tips for First-Time Authors
Here are six of my favorite take-away tips for anyone itching to publish a first novel, thriller or otherwise, in midlife (plus, a bonus: a few thrillers and mysteries you might enjoy reading this summer):
1. Leverage your life experience. Did you ever notice how many thriller writers came out of careers in government, the military, law and medicine? That’s no coincidence. They’re able to bring authenticity to their spy novels, medical mysteries and courtroom dramas because they’ve walked the walk and talked the talk.
(MORE: Turn Your Expertise Into a Second Career)

Plenty of other first careers can provide great material for second-career, first-time novelists, too.
At ThrillerFest, I learned, for example, that Daniel Palmer (Michael Palmer's son) is a former e-commerce pioneer who penned three novels about the dangers of our technocentric world (his latest is Stolen) and Maria Hudgins is an ex-high school science teacher and author of archaeological and travel mysteries (most recently, Death of a Second Wife).
So think about ways you could weave your previous work and adventures into a compelling story.
2. Wait to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Coming up with a great tale is a bit like producing fine wine: You can’t rush the process.
“The more time you take thinking about the idea, the better chance you have of developing the plot,” says Phillip Margolin, a former criminal defense attorney and author of multiple New York Times best-selling thrillers, including Capitol Murder, his latest.
During one of the ThrillerFest sessions, Margolin pointed out there was a three-year span between the time he came up with the germ of the idea for Gone, but Not Forgotten and began writing it.
While working on his book outlines, Margolin keeps asking himself questions (who, what, where, when and how) and continually refines the plot. He often spends four to six months developing and revising the outline before starting to write.
3. Model the masters. One of the best ways to learn to write well, which will up your odds of getting published, is by studying books you admire. Analyze the ebb and flow of their plots as well as the authors’ word usage and character development. 
Even seasoned authors find this technique helpful. M.J. Rose, the best-selling author of 13 novels (Seduction just came out) and founding board member of International Thriller Writers, told me she often reads her favorite books three times. The first time is to simply enjoy the story. The second is to focus on the writer’s style. The third is to dissect the book’s tone and structure.
Incidentally, Rose – a former advertising exec – self-published her first book, Lip Service, in 1998 after several traditional publishers turned it down.
4. Be willing to ask for feedback. “If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to be able to handle criticism,” Margolin says. “Everyone needs help and every book needs work.”
Finding the best people to critique your book can be a process of trial and error. If you know any editors or agents, ask them for feedback. If not, consider joining a local writers group. (Check with the continuing education coordinator at your community college or your reference librarian for nearby groups).
Just try to avoid asking family or friends for their opinions if they’re not in the publishing world. “They mean well, but they’ll drive you crazy,” Margolin jokes. On top of that, they probably don't have the expertise and wisdom to provide good advice.
5. Learn about the business of the business. Selecting the best method for publishing your book – going with a traditional publisher, an e-publisher or a print-on-demand service – can be a project in and of itself. Each alternative offers distinct advantages and drawbacks, so take your time exploring the options. If you hope to attract a traditional publisher, you'll generally need to have an agent.
(MORE: Self-Publishing in the Digital Age)

Brace yourself for repeated rejection, however, if you do decide to pursue the traditional route in hopes that a publisher will oversee and pay for the book’s production, design, editing and distribution, assist with marketing and anoint you with instant prestige. 
Virtually no one lands a publishing deal quickly. Even best-selling author Diane Mott Davidson wrote three novels before one was accepted for publication, when she was 41. (Her newest Goldy Schulz suspense novel, The Whole Enchilada, comes out in late August.)
I still laugh thinking about what my daughter, Juliana, told me after I received my sixth rejection letter: “Don’t worry, Mom, all that means is now you’re officially a real author.”
6. Don’t go it alone. Most writers tend not to be joiners, by nature. But as I saw at ThrillerFest, it pays to attend conferences with your peers. They’re wonderful venues for learning, networking, connecting with agents and meeting people who can help fuel your writing. 


The next ThrillerFest conference will be held next summer in New York (July 9-12, 2014). Other possibilities coming up: the Southern California Writers' Conference (and Retreat) in San Diego, Feb. 14-17, 2014, and the Romance Writers of America Conference in San Antonio, July 23-26, 2014.

To find more get-togethers, including summits for writers in particular regions and novelists in other genres, check out the robust listing in the Conferences and Residencies Database on the Poets and Writer’s Magazine website.

Most important, have fun!

“Understand the reality of the business you are getting into,” M.J. Rose says. “Then, write because you enjoy the process – not because you expect to have the next New York Times best-seller.”

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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